by Dr Laura Brearley
The Whales Are Back
The whale migration season off Phillip Island has begun again and the texts have started to arrive …
- Wednesday 29th May 9.45am
First Island whales this season. Two whales off San Remo jetty, heading to Cape Woolamai.
- Tuesday 4th June 3.31pm
One humpback sighted 1.4 kms of the Nobbies, heading towards Pyramid Rock.
- Friday 7th June 10.48am
One humpback whale, close to shore at Cape Woolamai.
We live at Cape Woolamai and although I was deep in work at the time that this third message came through, I answered what I felt was a call to action. When I arrived at Anzacs Beach at Cape Woolamai, the car park was full. A crowd of people was standing looking out to sea. There were families with children and people who had never met before were talking and laughing with each other. Just as I had, everyone there had dropped what they were doing when that text came through. Excitement was in the air and it felt like a shared experience of connection with the whales, as well as with each other.
I’ve noticed this sense of connection on whale cruise boats too. We board the boats as individuals and when the first whales are sighted, any separateness between passengers seems to dissolve. We sing and clap and whistle to the whales, reaching out to them together. Sometimes, they’ll swim along with us, even diving under the boat. If they’re feeling playful, they seem to dance in the water, breaching and splashing with their bodies and tails. It’s a profound experience to be part of that joyful play.
The whale at Cape Woolamai a few days ago was surfacing from time to time. I found it moving to see a whale in this early stage of the season and to know that the age-old cycle of the whale migration was underway again. With all the human interference of the natural world and the damage done, the rhythm of the migration endures. It is larger than all of us and that is a wonderful thing.
Humpback Whale Research
Over the last few weeks, I have been in touch with members of a team of international scientists who have been undertaking research on whale songs for many years. Led by Dr Ellen Garland (St Andrews University, Scotland) and Dr Jenny Allen (Griffith University, Queensland), the research has been tracking how the songs of humpback whales are transmitted over time and distance in the Pacific Ocean. The two lead researchers, Dr Ellen Garland and Dr Jenny Allen, have both expressed interest in the Intercultural Arts Program of the 2019 Island Whale Festival.
Their research has shown that whale songs are communicated across the South Pacific, moving from populations from eastern Australia in the west to French Polynesia in the east. The whale songs appear to come originally from the Indian Ocean, west of Australia representing a transmission of almost 10,000 kilometres. The research team has found that thousands of male humpbacks can synchronously change their song to a new version introduced from a neighbouring population in as little as two months. Their research in song learning has revealed that humpback whales employ some of the same learning strategies as songbirds and humans when acquiring a new song.
Below is a short film about this research:
With the support of local First Nation community members, Bass Coast Shire Council, Destination Phillip Island, Community Music Victoria, Cowes Uniting Church, we are currently organising the Intercultural Arts Program ‘Balert Yirramboi’ of the Island Whale Festival happening in Cowes on Phillip Island on the 5th – 7th July, 2019.
A talented group of musicians, artists and cultural advisors is coming together to help celebrate the whales through song, story, dance and collaborative art-making. Activities will include Ceremonies, Drumming Circles, Music and Dance, Song Circles, Song Exchanges, Concerts, a Street Parade and a Collaborative Artspace which weaves together music, art and science.
Jazz pianist, Steve Sedergreen, is composing music in response to the scientific whale song research. During the Festival, he will be performing his new composition with his long-time collaborators, Wamba Wamba didgeridoo player, Ron Murray and jazz drummer, Mike Jordan. Camille Monet, who is coordinating the Collaborative Artspace at the Festival, will be facilitating arts activities in response to the whale song research. Participants will be invited to create visual responses to the whale songs, making patterns on long sheets of paper which will be carried in the Whale Parade at the end of the Festival. Aunty Fay Stewart-Muir has generously gifted local Boon Wurrung language to a Whale Song Cycle that I have composed and that Trawlwoolway artist Lisa Kennedy has illustrated.
We would like to extend a creative invitation to you. If you are someone who loves whales and is interested in creative collaborations, song-writing, poetry or story-telling, there is an opportunity for you to share your ideas and make a contribution to the Intercultural Arts Program of the 2019 Whale Festival.
If you are seeking inspiration, one way of getting focussed is to reflect on some core questions, such as …
- Why do you love whales?
- What do whale songs stir in you?
- What does the sense of connection with whales feel like for you?
- If you had a message to send to the whales, what would you say or sing to them?
If you would like to make a creative contribution to the Intercultural Arts Program, please send an email to Laura Brearley firstname.lastname@example.org by COB Friday 28th June, 2019 with your contact details and a brief description of what you would be interested in sharing at the Festival, eg song, poetry, story. The program has been designed with activities in which creative exchanges and collaborations can occur. The copyright of all material will remain with the contributing artists.
The full program of the Island Whale Festival is available at: http://islandwhales.com.au/program/
Many events are free and bookings for ticketed activities can be made on-line.
And … next time you hear that there are whales off the coast, and you are nearby, just stop what you are doing and take some time to be near the whales and feel the gift of their presence. I suspect they will feel you too.
-Dr Laura Brearley
Featured image ‘Whale Tail’ by Lisa Kennedy